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The Selfish Spirit of Giving

spirit of giving

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Charitable giving. In-kind gifting. The spirit of giving. However you say it, the connotation when it comes to gifts and giving is one of positivity and altruistic good.

But it might not be the positive gesture that it’s made to sound like, or that we’d like to pretend it is.

As I sat in almost-gridlock outside the Target parking lot last Saturday, my mind flashed forward to the upcoming Christmas shopping I’d need to do. I groaned inwardly as I thought of what a chore it is; to fight parking lot traffic and impatient shoppers; to come up with someone to give everyone; to save up enough money to do so. With all the hassle, it makes you think about why we go through this whole gift-giving act in the first place. It’s because we want to make people happy right? We want to show appreciation and affection. But maybe it’s because of something else.

A study out of Stanford recently demonstrated that people are actually more enticed to give for selfish reasons: when it makes the giver feel better. According to this study we don’t give because we feel bad for someone or because we want to raise someone’s spirits. Instead, it showed that we give when it makes us feel good. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a bit more self-centered than you’d think giving a gift would be.

The researchers were able to show this association by looking at the amount of active in the “reward” section of the brain when subjects were shown different images and asked if they wanted to make a donation. A few outliers never gave at all or gave no matter what the picture, but the large group between those two spectrums showed that people were more likely to give when there was higher “feel good” activity in the brain.

The study used a known method called the “identifiable victim effect” when showing the pictures. This means that people identify with a specific victim better than just an idea. For example, when there’s a national tragedy, more donations are received when the news tells one person’s story than when they list all the statistics of everybody that’s been affected. It’s easier to relate to a person than to a number. In this specific study, pictures of orphans elicited greater responses than silhouettes.

This study showed that it wasn’t just the “identifiable” part of that theory that made it true, but the feeling of positivity the picture gave the viewer. When viewers experienced negative feelings (like guilt or pity), they were less likely to give.

So while you might really truly be giving a gift because you know it will make someone happy, it may also be because it makes you feel good to see them happy.

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